What’s the difference between Naturopathy and Functional Medicine? It’s a very good question and with the many different practitioner titles in the UK natural health arena and the increasing traction of Functional Medicine in the UK, much confusion can arise. In this blog, we’re going to explore the two areas and discuss; are traditional health practices such as naturopathy still relevant in modern health care?
What is Naturopathy?
Firstly, let’s look at the traditional practice of naturopathy, a model of healthcare identified best through the Latin expression ‘vis medicatrix naturae’ or ‘the healing power of nature’. Naturopathy is rooted in the philosophy that the body has the ability to heal itself through special vital energy. Many traditional practitioners describe this energy as the “Life Force”, which encompasses a wide range of subtle energies and beliefs.
The philosophy and the therapies of naturopathic medicine, which have their origins in Hippocrates and the traditional and indigenous medicines of the world, first became a distinct profession in Germany in the mid-1800s. This means that Naturopaths blend centuries-old knowledge and a philosophy that nature is the most effective healer with current research on health and human systems; for example, more modern naturopathic training includes the biochemical energy processes of ATP (energy) production in the cells, specifically the mitochondria, as part of the “Life Force” energy.
Full naturopathic training takes several years and practitioners focus on some of the major tenets as described by the General Naturopathic Council:
- Utilising the healing power of nature.
- Addressing the whole person and recognising their uniqueness.
- Addressing the cause and not just the symptoms.
A naturopathic practitioner is trained in the area of natural treatments including diet, herbal remedies, and food supplements alongside naturopathic techniques such as sauna, Epsom salt baths, enemas, castor oil packing and dry skin body brushing. Personalised combinations of these therapies and techniques are designed to remove blocks (such as toxin accumulation in the cells) and stimulate the movement of energies in the body to encourage natural healing through various processes including lymph flow, detoxification and gut eliminations.
Naturopathic practitioners may also have trained in and utilise additional energy elements such as acupuncture, homoeopathy, kinesiology, chiropractic, herbal medicine, massage or hydrotherapy. Of course, there are also highly skilled practitioners in these specific areas that may go on and form an interest in the area of naturopathy! What’s important is that the therapeutic modalities used in naturopathic medicine integrate conventional, scientific and empirical methodology with the ancient laws of nature.
What is Functional Medicine?
Functional Medicine (FM) is a movement that has expanded rapidly since 1990 when Dr Jeffrey Bland first created the concept as a discipline that marries progress in basic medical science with expertise in clinical medicine to address the growing epidemic in 21st-century chronic disease. It’s designed to be an effective approach to healthcare in the 21st century.
Functional Medicine is grounded in the seven basic principles:
- Science-based medicine that connects the emerging research base to clinical practice.
- Biochemical individuality based on genetic and environmental uniqueness.
- Patient-centred care rather than disease-focused treatment.
- Dynamic balance of internal and external factors that affect total functioning.
- Web-like interconnections among the body’s physiological processes also affect every aspect of functionality.
- Health as a positive vitality, not merely the absence of disease.
- Promotion of organ reserve as a means to enhance the healthspan.
The FM model is an individualised, patient-centred, science-based approach that empowers patients and practitioners to work together to address the underlying causes of disease and promote optimal wellness. It requires a detailed understanding of each patient’s genetic, biochemical, and lifestyle factors and leverages data to direct personalised treatment plans that lead to improved patient outcomes.
By addressing the root cause(s), rather than symptoms, FM practitioners become oriented to identifying the complexity of the disease. They may find one condition has many different causes and, likewise, one cause may result in many different conditions. As a result, FM treatment targets the specific manifestations of disease in each individual.
FM practitioners recommend dietary and lifestyle changes, alongside food supplements in order to improve the body’s health status. The naturopathic techniques such as enemas and castor oil packing do not usually form part of the core FM training. FM practitioners may also utilise tests, such as adrenal profiles or stool tests, as a means to inform the direction of the programme. These tests are not exclusive to FM practitioners and are increasingly becoming part of other qualified holistic practitioners tool kits.
So what are the differences?
With the philosophies and practices of Naturopathy and FM described above, we can see how the lines get pretty blurry between the two practices. The two fields of health are similar in many ways including the incorporation of evidence-based medicine, patient-centred care, a whole-person approach, and treating the cause rather than just the symptoms.
If we look at these practices in terms of a historical context then, in our opinion, FM has its roots in naturopathy. After all, both areas are about holistic practices to return the body to health through natural means.
What true naturopathy has held onto, as a central tenet to its practice is its vitalistic principle, the healing power of nature. Naturopaths trust in and support the bodies’ innate ability to heal itself. All naturopathic therapies are therefore employed work in concert with this vital force to enhance and support the healing capacity. Naturopaths simply facilitate this healing ability by removing obstacles (e.g. toxins) to cure and give the body what it needs. It’s for this reason that the use of traditional techniques such as enemas and lymph support through dry skin body brushing and appropriate detoxification programmes are key to a successful naturopathic programme.
Another difference lies within a similarity. While both fields aim to treat the cause, they have different ideas of the said cause. From a FM standpoint, education is more concentrated on the eradication of the microbe leading to disease e.g. addressing gut dysbiosis. Whereas from a true naturopathic standpoint the education is based upon the evaluation of the terrain, i.e. the quality of the tissue and cells (such as cellular pH and importance of alkalisation); terrain being the unique susceptibility of the individual based on lifestyle, environment, and constitutional aspects of the person. This is the basis of why some people become ill while others do not even when exposed to the same microbe. 
What does this all mean? Which health route should I choose?
It is understandable that confusion exists when trying to delineate the differences between naturopathic and FM practise and whether traditional techniques such as enemas and castor oil packing still play a role in modern-day healing. There’s much overall similarity between these disciplines but the real differences lay in the practitioner themselves and their training that underpins their philosophies and approach to health. Many naturopaths train and utilise FM practises and vice versa. It’s all about finding a qualified practitioner that resonates with your own beliefs and health needs.
So back to the original question: are traditional health care approaches and naturopathic techniques still relevant? Yes, they are! FM has taken the health world by storm in recent years and offers a dynamic approach to supporting people in their health and recovery from illness but, as we’ve discussed, FM is rooted in naturopathic principles. So, whether you want to train in FM or naturopathy, or whether as a client you want to see a qualified Naturopath or FM practitioner, we believe it’s about what suits you and the approach you want to utilise in optimizing your health and that of others.
If you’re a practitioner interested in training in FM then check out the Applying Functional Medicine in Clinical Practice (AFMCP) Institute of Functional Medicine training coming to the UK in 2020.